Know your position: FX Volatility, friend or foe?

The FX market is no stranger to volatility. Whether it is global economic or political uncertainties, or a country’s interest rate outlook, they all play out in the currency markets. The constant push and pull of both known and unknown information can lead to bouts of extreme volatility. FX traders love volatility. There are plenty of opportunities to enter and exit positions and make money. FX trading is not for the faint hearted however, it is easier to lose money than it is to make it. But how do businesses that are buying or selling goods and services in foreign currencies navigate their way through the challenges of managing FX risk? FX trading is not a core function for most businesses but yet the impact of the FX market can make or break a financial year. I have witnessed businesses being wiped out due to adverse FX movements such as the commodity exporter that saw commodity prices plummet at the same time as the FX rate soar, a catastrophic combination. On the other hand I have seen a business live to trade another year because it was sitting on significant gains from in-the-money FX hedges that were cashed up to offset the losses suffered in the core business.

There is a plethora of risk management approaches to FX risk. To start with there is the philosophical debate about whether to hedge or not. Some would say that it is a zero-sum game in the long run i.e. periods of currency strength will be offset by periods of weakness, therefore, there is no incentive to hedge, just live with the swings and roundabouts of the prevailing spot rate. Of course the question is whether a business can sustain periods of adverse currency movements long enough to stay in business and enjoy the good times. For those that do participate in FX hedging there are questions of how much to hedge, when to hedge, which financial instrument to use?

The NZD/AUD exchange rate in the last few months has demonstrated massive volatility strengthening 10c (>10%) in less than six months. For years the NZD was extremely weak against the high flying AUD. As every other economy was cutting interest rates following the GFC the Aussies were just digging up more of its natural resources and selling it to China. The global recession did not come to Australia. More recently there has been a significant change in the Australian economic outlook. Current account surplus has turned to deficit as its trading partners have slowed, forcing the Reserve Bank to loosen monetary policy. At the same time the better performing NZ economy has been able to sustain a removal of the post-recession super loose monetary policy conditions. As shown below the interest rate differential of NZ and Australia remains a clear influence on the exchange rate.

Aussie int rate diffs


The importance of the Australian economy to New Zealand means that there are a lot of NZ companies exporting to Australia that are having to manage the NZD/AUD exchange rate. Everyone has a view – some you pay for (treasury advisors, consultants) some you don’t (bankers, taxi drivers) but they all have one thing in common – nobody knows the future direction of FX rates. That’s not to say taking advice (paid for or otherwise) is not relevant. No advice will be right all of the time but so long as the view is well considered and relevant to your business then it is hard to be critical after the fact with the benefit of hindsight. Hedging buys a business the necessary time to adjust selling prices or supply contracts to the new FX level.

A fundamental aspect of FX hedging decisions is to quantify and understand the impact of FX movements on the business. By regularly making and updating foreign cashflow forecasts, capturing existing hedging in place and understanding the impact of FX movements on the unhedged component of foreign cashflows, a company is in a much better position to make informed hedging decisions. Whether it is a budget rate or a costing rate to protect knowing your position is essential for making better FX hedging decisions. One thing is certain – FX markets will always be volatile – the question is whether a company has enough visibility on its current position to make sound decisions about the future. Hedgebook is a tool that can help give a company the visibility it needs to make informed FX hedging decisions.


Using Hedgebook to make smart fx hedging decisions

Has anyone told you lately that they know where the currency is going? Lots of people think they know if it is going up or down but the reality is that no one knows where it is going in the next 5 minutes, 5 days or 5 years. We might all be able to have an educated guess but that is all it is – a guess.

As a former risk manager I know how hard it is to advise corporates on the risks around fx management. I can remember going to a potential client and explaining to the owner of the business the importance of having a treasury policy and why you should follow it. We could add value in helping with the strategic decisions and the instruments to use but by the way we can’t pick the currency because no one really knows where it is going and we don’t try to. After listening to all this sage advice the owner turned to us and asked what use were we to him if we didn’t know where the currency was going? End of meeting.

It is true no one can pick where the currency is heading. What is important is:

  • Understanding the impact on your business when foreign exchange rates move.
  • Knowing the impact on budget rates or costing rates when foreign exchange rates move.
  • Knowing whether the business can afford to not cover i.e. if exchange rates go any further against you are you losing too much margin or indeed are you out of business.

Having the ability to compare the amount of foreign exchange hedging in place with the impact of exchange rate movements on the uncovered portion is vital information in making rational decisions in an irrational market.

Whilst we can’t pick currencies at Hedgebook (we are still working on that one) we can tell you the impact on your business if rates go up or down. We can tell you in dollars and cents what the impact will be  on unhedged foreign cashflows, what the exchange rate needs to be to achieve the budget or costing rate and what the value of existing hedges are.

Today’s fx risk management isn’t about picking exchange rates but about giving businesses greater visibility over its foreign exchange position. This allows for smarter foreign exchange hedging decisions using all available information. Sometimes the information isn’t what you want to hear but at least you don’t need to hope that things go your way. You can avoid the knee jerk decision – and chuck out the crystal ball.

Infoscan – economical access to financial market data

At Hedgebook we are committed to providing economical solutions to assist the treasury function. Our low cost software, HedgebookPro, provides a treasury management system (“TMS”) entry point for companies that have historically relied on spreadsheets to manage their foreign exchange and interest rate exposures. HedgebookPro is also an alternative for companies that already use a TMS to capture their vanilla derivatives and feel they do not use the full functionality offered by these larger and more expensive systems.

We take a similar approach to financial market data through our company Infoscan. Hedgebook purchased the Infoscan business 12 or so months ago as it is a natural fit for Hedgebook. Many New Zealand market participants of a certain age will remember the Infoscan pagers – they carried a certain cachet at the time! Data is delivered to smartphones these days.

Many companies with exposure to foreign exchange and interest rate markets cannot justify the cost of a Bloomberg or Thomson Reuters product. Websites are OK for accessing spot fx rates on a rough and ready basis but are unsatisfactory for providing the required comfort when entering into larger derivative transactions. Infoscan gives users the visibility over real-time market spot fx rates but, more critically, the fx forward market too. As mentioned, free websites can give an indication of spot rates but accessing accurate forward point information is harder to ascertain.

Whether transacting a new FEC, or adjusting an existing one through pre-deliveries and extensions, it is important for decision makers to have good information at hand regarding the prevailing forward market. Transparency of the forward points provides greater confidence that a competitive market rate is achieved.

Infoscan can deliver data in a number of ways either through a website login or, alternatively, directly into spreadsheets. Like HedgebookPro the market data functionality is delivered in a no fuss, low cost manner and helps enhance fx conversion rates.

It’s risk management stupid

The bankrupted City of Detroit is locked in a legal battle over the purchase of interest rate swaps as are many other municipalities/local governments around the world. Detroit’s case is particularly high profile given the tragic demise of a once great city, and as with most bankruptcies not everyone appears to be treated equally or indeed fairly.

The numbers that relate to the interest rate swaps are enormous, which is no doubt why Detroit feels so aggrieved. These numbers are also, not surprisingly, losses, and indeed realised losses as the bankruptcy will result in the closing out of these swaps. But whose fault is it really, the banks for selling these swaps or the municipality for purchasing them?

Everyone likes to bash the banks and indeed they may not be blameless in this case. If the banks are withholding information or forcing the entity into purchasing the swaps as part of the underlying transaction then this doesn’t seem right. However, whether you are a large municipality in the US or a dairy farmer in New Zealand the onus is on the buyer of these products to understand the risks associated with them before they transact. It is difficult to believe that a finance team that is sophisticated enough to issue millions of dollars of bonds does not understand the mechanics of an interest rate swap.

Interest rate swaps are risk management tools. They can be used to give certainty of interest cashflows for entities that are perhaps highly geared and therefore cannot afford to pay any higher interest rates or can also be used as a proactive way of managing interest rates. Portfolio management dictates that a proportion of debt should be fixed either through fixed rate borrowing or interest rate swaps but the financial markets are not a one way bet, otherwise we would all be millionaires. There are risks attached to entering these transactions. As is often the case we hear of the cases where rates have gone against the swap owner but not so much when it has gone the other way.

Interest rate swaps are not toxic or necessarily dangerous. They should though be used by those who understand them. The various scenarios that can play out depending on movements in the financial markets should be modelled. Interest rate swaps also have the flexibility of being able to be closed out as part of the overall risk management strategy if necessary.

As with any purchase the buyer needs to know what they are buying. With swaps they need to form part of the overall risk management approach. We would all like the opportunity to try and renegotiate the whys and wherefores of entering into a financial instrument when the markets move against us. Swaps can be complicated but are also useful risk management tools that have a place in any borrowers or investors risk management strategy. Lack of understanding should not be a defense against decisions which in hindsight may not have been made.

Chinese Growth Slows, Hurting Regional Trade Partners

Our last update on the Chinese economy expressed concerns over the future path of growth. The transition to the free market from a centrally-planned state has proven to be difficult as the government fights financial and political corruption, a growing middle class, and international pressure to liberalize its currency, the Yuan.

Chinese growth is slowing, but there’s nothing that the once frequently interventionist government is going to do about it. In part, growth slowed alongside lending activity, as the People’s Bank of China has maintained tighter monetary conditions for two main reasons: as it attempts to weed out illegal and corrupt banking practices that take place off companies’ balance sheets, “shadow banking.”

If only to consider the scope of this problem, on June, the interbank lending rate, overnight SHIBOR (local equivalent to LIBOR), rose by an astounding 578-basis points to 13.4%. In comparison, the 1-week SHIBOR rate rose by 292-bps to 11.0%; this inversion of the SHIBOR curve is a strong indication of extremely tight credit conditions. Typically, yield curves invert when liquidity is a problem; the fall of 2008 was plagued by this issue in the United States in particular.

In our last post regarding Chinese growth, we said, in a ‘tongue-in-cheek’ manner, that “There’s one major caveat to Chinese data that is truly inapplicable to any other global economic force: you just don’t know if you can trust it. Chinese data seemingly comes out of a black box, where Chinese government readings of the economy tend to outpace private sector readings, or even eclipse foreign government estimates of economic activity.”

Were those views ever vindicated: in June, the Chinese government said that so-called arbitrage transactions distorted trade figures in a manner favorable to stronger growth. From Bloomberg: “The transactions “resulted in abnormal growth in mainland-Hong Kong trade for a few months” since the fourth quarter, Shen Danyang, a Commerce Ministry spokesman, said at a monthly briefing today in Beijing. “Even if these arbitrage trades are not necessarily illegal, they are not fully compliant with regulations. That’s why the government has been concerned about this.”

As the government faces these issues and more on the way to opening up the Chinese economy even further, it’s evident that any new policies will be geared towards a more regulated, transparent economy. Accordingly, to prevent fueling a housing bubble (which is a concern now), the government is unlikely to implement further fiscal stimulus in the near-term. This has and will leave the economy weak in 2013:

China GDP

As long as Chinese growth remains in a rut, global trade will remain dampened and hopes for broader global recovery will be teeter. An ongoing concern for Australian policymakers, signs of slowing Chinese growth continue to weigh on the economy, where the Reserve Bank of Australia cut the main rate to a record low 2.50% in August.

The reasons behind the Reserve Bank of Australia’s rate cut are critically important, and are why we believe that, thanks to China, the Australian Dollar could remain under pressure in the interim.

Rate Differentials and Expected Policy Action by the RBNZ Keep the Kiwi Looking Up

Reserve Bank of New Zealand Governor Graeme Wheeler currently faces a problem. On one hand, exporters are losing their competitive edge as the New Zealand Dollar has strengthened. Industrialists have called for the RBNZ to try to keep rates pointed lower in order to weaken the currency. Certainly, ever since the Federal Reserve suggested that it might begin to normalize policy, New Zealand government bond yields have increased.

Given the implications of the Fed removing liquidity from global markets, bond markets have been under pressure. Considering that investors had piled into those assets with any yield over the past few years, these same assets – including New Zealand government bonds – have seen their yields spike higher faster than their policymakers can deal with (as seen in emerging markets).

Bond spread_NZDUSD

Over the past several months, the results of the Fed’s taper speculation have provoked the NZ-US 10Y yield to widen to their largest differentials all year. This will be important for future Kiwi strength: widening interest rate differentials are supportive of a stronger currency. The recent divergence could be due to the broader repricing of risk assets to compensate for a slower easing Fed. But domestic New Zealand data is pushing rates up higher naturally.

Rate increases_NZDUSD

Over the past three months, RBNZ Governor Wheeler has used his press conferences not to make a concerted attempt to weaken his currency but rather to highlight the optimistic points on the economy. In fact, currency swaps traders are near their most bullish on the New Zealand Dollar all year, with respect to the number of basis points priced in. If this pricing mechanism exceeds 90-bps, it will be closing in on its most bullish reading since the New Zealand Dollar peaked in the summer of 2011.

Why is this information useful for hedging? If the swaps market is pricing in future rate hikes by a central bank, it might be an appropriate time to hedge against further upside risk in the currency.

Emerging Markets Meltdown: Is Another Asian Crisis Brewing?

Concerns over a 1997-redux are brewing. The parallels are staggering. Asia is facing growth pressure. Emerging markets are going belly up. Currencies are rapidly deteriorating as the Federal Reserve considers monetary tightening. Japan is on the verge of fiscal tightening. These are all the same ingredients that led to the 1997 Asian crisis. Are we looking over the edge, or is there hope to avoid another financial crisis?

First, a look at emerging market currencies: they’ve been hammered in 2013 far too similar to the pain seen in 2008. The Indian Rupee hit its lowest exchange rate ever against the U.S. Dollar in the 3Q’13; the Indonesian Rupiah is halfway back to its lows; the Brazilian Real is a few percent away from its lows; and the Turkish Lira, burdened further by recent political discord, it at its lowest levels ever.

Emerging market currencies

So much for the “carry trade,” of which all of these currencies are considered.  Why? They have higher yields. They are expressed in the form of the sovereign bonds. It is important to distinguish the difference between “higher yields” and “higher yields.” Stick with us – there’s a clear distinction.

Higher yields are used to refer to two, opposite situations: one in which a country, with more obvious inherent risk (politically, economically, socially), offers a “higher yield” but is considered a worthwhile investment given the optimistic projected path of the economy – economic liberalization, a stable political environment, reduced risk for violence. The aforementioned emerging market economies share these characteristics: optimism for a brighter future.

10 yr gov bond yields

The other type of “higher yield” is when there is panic. There is no optimism for a higher future; higher yields result from investors selling the bonds (bond prices and yields are inversely correlated). This can result from a number of influences – war, higher inflation, political instability – as well as the threat of reduced liquidity. The higher yields we’ve seen in these emerging market economies over the course of 2013 represents the wrong type of higher yield, predicated on exogenous circumstances – the Federal Reserve winding down its stimulus program .

Does this mean that another 1997 Asian crisis is upon us? Possibly, maybe among the BRICS. As the chart to the left shows, international claims to GDP – foreign banks’ lending – is rising at a pace that puts it on par to where the Euro-Zone was three years ago. It also puts the BRICS on par with the Asian financial crisis in 1996/1997. These are concerns that must be monitored considerably in the weeks ahead. Excess volatility will greatly enhance the need to reduce portfolio risk through hedging.

Foreign banks lending

Charts courtesy of the RBA’s August Statement on Monetary Policy.

Why Timing is Key for Hedging!

Just like everything else in life – from barbequing, to merging into traffic, to releasing new products during certain economic cycles – timing is absolutely crucial in hedging foreign exchange exposure. The best way to know when to hedge or not is by looking at a chart – yes, it’s that simple!

Take the NZDUSD pair from January 2003 to December 2009:

NZD/USD Spot Rate

In April 2005, the NZDUSD moved to new all-time highs, having broken the previous one set over a year earlier. At this time, it wouldn’t have been wise to hedge against further new highs; but taking on a hedge for a downside risk would have been reasonable. The same can be said about the NZDUSD in January 2009 – it had moved to its lowest exchange rate in over six-years – it might not have been appropriate to hedge against further downside risks, but instead more proper to hedge against upside risks (hindsight being 20/20, this would have been a wise idea).

For example, in January 2008, it would have been a good time for a New Zealand company hedge payments made in U.S. Dollars, because were the NZDUSD to depreciate in value, the more money the firm would have to pay. If in January 2008, the New Zealand company decided not to hedge US$10 million in payments due a year later, it would have seen its cost rise from N$12.5 million (NZDUSD = 0.8000) to N$20 million (NZDUSD = 0.5000). By not hedging, the New Zealand firm would have had to pay out an extra N$7.5 million!

The next blog post will illustrate how market positioning can be used in timing.

The Benefits of Hedging, and Managing FX Risk: Part 2

Managing this FX risk faced by importers and exporters all over the globe today is a three-step process: identify FX risk; develop a strategy; and utilized the proper instruments/strategies to hedge the risk.

Identify FX Risk

As explained in the previous blog post, the most common type of risk faced by firms is transaction risk. For a New Zealand exporting company paid in Australian Dollars, measuring FX risk entails determining how many Australian Dollars it expects to receive over the coming quarter (whatever the period of business may be), versus the money the New Zealand firm will need to make payments in Australian Dollars over the same period. Simply put, this difference is the amount that needs to be hedged.

Developing a Strategy

Developing a hedging strategy necessitates that the following questions be answered: when should FX exposure be hedged; what tools/instruments are available under the current circumstances; and how will the performance of the hedge be measured? Developing a strategy is contingent on where in the process a firm is (see flow chart below).

Blog 5 Image

Using the Proper Hedging Instrument

Implementing the proper hedging strategy involves a review of the company’s policies as well as the intentions of the hedge. Hedges can vary from something simple like purchasing the foreign currency, to more round about ways like purchasing commodities in the country where the company’s products are sold.

We will discuss different types of hedges – what the proper hedging instrument is – in the next post.

The Benefits of Hedging, and Managing FX Risk: Part 1

Many small- and medium-sized firms engaging in import and/or export activity tend not to hedge. The reasons not to hedge come in all shapes and sizes: it’s too complex; it’s too costly; there’s a misconception that it is speculation; or even that that firms don’t know about hedging tools and strategies available to them. And in the case that companies don’t hedge despite being aware of its benefits – the excuse is often that exchange rates might even hold steady! These are costly, misguided beliefs!

Many studies show that hedging is a necessary activity for firms operating in the contemporary globalized economy. Benefits include:

– Increase ability to forecast future cash flows

– Minimize the impact of exchange rate volatility on profits

– Diminish the need to attempt to forecast exchange rates

– Helps ‘buy time’ for a company to adjust its marketing and sales strategies should the domestic currency rise in value, thereby reducing the firm’s competiveness abroad

Needless to say, if a firm has the financial ability to hedge at a reasonable cost, there’s no reason not to! Essentially, hedging is like FX insurance.

The next blog post will cover the steps involved with hedging.